A conversation with Simon Gerrans: The art of the breakaway

One big breakaway and a stage victory can change everything for a professional cyclist. Just ask Simon Gerrans, a fifth-year pro at Cervélo TestTeam who scored a breakthrough win in last year’s Tour de France in stage 15 to Prato Nevoso in Italy.

By Andrew Hood

Gerrans, a fifth-year pro at Cervélo TestTeam, finished sixth at Sunday’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Photo: Andrew Hood

One big breakaway and a stage victory can change everything for a professional cyclist.

Just ask Simon Gerrans, a fifth-year pro at Cervélo TestTeam who scored a breakthrough win in last year’s Tour de France in stage 15 to Prato Nevoso in Italy.

After trying in vain to sneak into a breakaway, Gerrans found the right company with Danny Pate (Garmin-Slipstream), Egoi Martinez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) and José Luís Arrieta (Ag2r). The quartet stayed clear and despite being dropped halfway up the Prato Nevoso summit, Gerrans regained contact and then darted clear in the closing meters to win the stage.

The victory was the highlight so far for the affable 28-year-old Aussie, who joined Cervélo to help them in the spring classics and then reload for likely starts in the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France.

Gerrans enjoyed a solid spring campaign, finishing in the top 10 in all three races during “Ardennes week,” with seventh at Amstel Gold Race, eighth at Flèche Wallonne and sixth at Liège-Bastogne-Liège.

Earlier this year, VeloNews European correspondent Andrew Hood sat down with Gerrans to recount that rainy day in Italy last July. Here are excerpts from the interview:

VeloNews: So you’re one of a couple of riders from Crédit Agricole that have ended up at Cervélo, how did that happen?

Simon Gerrans: I still had a two-year contract with Credit Agricole, pending them finding a new sponsor. Roger Legeay had until the first of August to try to find a new sponsor, and it just didn’t happen. Everyone was just shocked. Riders weren’t even looking for a new team because everyone expected something to come through and it was a bit of a sad day in cycling to see a team that had been around such a long time disappear.

That winning moment: Gerrans gets a big win at the Tour in 2008

That winning moment: Gerrans gets a big win at the Tour in 2008

Photo: Graham Watson

VN: When did have the first contact with Cervélo?

SG: I was first approached during the Tour de France about the team. To be honest, I was a little cautious. You hear about new teams coming and disappearing even before the first day of racing. After speaking with a few mates who have been in that situation, they were saying to be cautious, but the more I found out about the team, the more I liked it. I’m really happy to be here.

VN: What’s your role on the team, you’re not quite a big GC rider like Carlos Sastre and you’re not a big sprinter like Thor Hushovd, where do you fit in on the team’s hierarchy?

SG: I think I fit in just below those big captains, the next tier down. I am going to get some support in some races where I am trying to win myself. I think I have enough clout on the team to say, obviously on days when we’re not clearly riding for our captain, that if I put my hand up, I will get some support. Then I have a couple of great leaders to ride for. They’re some of the best riders in the world.

VN: So how far away is your place in Monaco from the start of the time trial at the Tour de France?

SG: Well, Monaco isn’t very big, so not far. It starts down at the port so I could probably roll out of bed and be down there in about 30 seconds on my bike. I could the do the warm-up in my living room. It will be exciting. It’s a really hard route. It will be ideal for a climber/TT specialist. It will be too hard for the sprinters. I think it’s really a course ideal for Bradley McGee. He’ll be crying when he’s driving in the team car, but he knew that when he made his decision. I don’t think Monaco knows what’s coming. The Grand Prix is one thing, but the Tour de France is just huge.

VN: Looking back at your stage victory last year at Prato Nevoso, what significance does it hold for you now?

SG: Personally, I still have to buckle up my shoes everyday and go out training. Everyone else’s expectations of me are a little bit higher. I’ve always put a bit of pressure on myself to do well. I’ve really noticed that my profile has gone up quite a bit back home in Australia. In the past, I was able to roll along pretty anonymously, but these days I seem to get recognized everywhere I go back home in Adelaide. That shows how much cycling is growing in Australia. Everyone in Australia stays up late to watch the Tour because it’s on at 2 a.m. People say to me how tired they get during the summer, but they love it. They get addicted. They cannot turn it off until the end of the stage.

VN: Talk us through that stage, because it was a very tactical finale, with four riders bucking of the win?

SG: It was a very tactical stage all the way to the finish. It was such a satisfying win because I knew I wasn’t the strongest guy in the breakaway. I stuck to my plan and let the other guys attack themselves to death and I just held out to the end. That really played to my favor.

VN: Did you know the climb to Prato Nevoso?

SG: Not at all. It wasn’t one of the climbs we did during our training. I didn’t know the climb, how steep it was, where it kicked up. I never saw it before, I really didn’t know what was coming up. My earpiece stopped working, so I didn’t know what was happening in the last 30km. I heard one little crackle over the radio when I heard my director say, ‘one last turn then 200 meters,’ so I knew if I got to the finish with those guys, I could just open up my sprint and I’d have a chance. So the one bit I received on the radio really helped a lot.

VN: When you were dropped by Pate and Martinez, did you think all was lost?

SG: Not really. I knew that when Pate and Martinez dropped me on the climb, I just had to keep them within striking distance. I was lucky because the top part of the climb wasn’t nearly as steep. And what really worked well, I was able to ride my own tempo. They were continually attacking each other, one would be 10 meters in front, then the other would 20 meters in front, and they were doing this all the way up the climb until they attacked themselves out and I was able to ride back on. When I caught them with 5km to go, I knew there was not going to be any presents there. I was going to do what I could to win the stage.

VN: After the stage, Egoi Martinez certainly wasn’t happy, did he say anything to you?

SG: You’re right, Martinez wasn’t happy, because he knew he was the strongest guy in the break, but he screwed it up. He didn’t see me pull through in the last few kilometers, so for some reason he didn’t think I was going to sprint. I don’t know what he was thinking. What I found out afterwards, because Arrieta is a good friend of mine, was that he and Martinez are from the same village in Spain. So there was a little bit of a in-break competition between those two and Martinez was more concerned about beating Arrieta and forgot about me. That’s why Martinez was riding so hard, so that Arrieta couldn’t get back on, so that played into my hand a little bit. Martinez wasn’t too pleased with me after that, which if you’re the strongest one there and you lose, I can understand that. He’s been around, won stages at the Vuelta, won the Avenir. He was showing his legs all day, dropping us on the climbs.

Gerrans was one of two Crédit Agricole riders who made the jump to Cervélo.

Photo: Andrew Hood

VN: Just how hard is it to get into a winning breakaway at the Tour de France?

SG: That’s the hardest way to win a stage. It really has to come together on the day. That’s the only way a rider like myself is going to win a stage. You cannot plan it. I’d been trying for days on the transition stages to try to get into the breaks. I just couldn’t make one stick. I’d get into one, then someone would chase it back. I don’t know how many attacks I tried to get away, then I was like, what the heck, I will give it a try in the mountains. Those guys went away and I bridged out to them and that was the break.

VN: It was an ideal breakaway, because all four riders were from teams who really wanted to win a stage and didn’t present a GC threat?

SG: We obviously worked hard together. The other three guys went away first and it took me five or six kilometers to get across to them. I thought my day was over before it began, because I nearly exploded trying to get across to them. They actually turned around and saw that I was there, they waited for me a little bit. They probably figured four is better than three.

VN: When did you realize that the break was going to stick?

SG: We built up a lead of 17 minutes at one point. What worked for us and not so well for the others is that Pereiro crashed on that Agnello descent, so the group lost a lot of momentum. Then there was a big crash in a round-about on the valley, when they went down like bowling pins. Cunego went down there and Lampre was doing a lot of work. With all those things combined, the breakaway finally worked. You might try 100 times in breakaways in the Tour de France and never make it.

VN: How many successful breakaways have you been in during your Tours?

SG: In four Tours, I’ve only been in one other breakaway that actually made it to the finish to win the stage. In 2005, in my first Tour, I was third behind Savoldelli and Arvesen. And the next time that I made it into a break that made it all the way to the finish was last year, and that’s not from a lack of trying. In 2006 and 2007, things were a little different because we had Christophe Moreau, so we had some GC ambitions and we had more structure about helping those guys. In 2005, just like last year, it was more about getting into breakaways and trying to win stages.

VN: That must be a more exciting way to race, but also more difficult?

SG: It’s a different kind of pressure. I remember my director was coming up to me after we went through the first mountains to say, ‘well, we thought that you were a climber, and you weren’t in the first group. We hope to see you in the Alps.’ So I had a bit of pressure to get into a move in the Alps. Sometimes it feels like the harder you try, the less it happens. It was absolutely pouring at the start and one good attack and we were gone.

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